Friday, September 28, 2018

Timeless, Clifton Webb at the Ohr

Sometimes you need to travel to see New Orleans artists' works. The solo exhibition Icons: The Sacred Muse by Clifton Webb at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum is the occasion to take a trip to Biloxi, Mississippi. The African-American sculptor, a pillar of the city's art scene, was a co-founder  of the Contemporary Arts Center and participated to the New Orleans Talented in Visual Arts Program as a teacher for twenty-five years. Homegrown, he graduated with a BFA and an MFA from Louisiana State University. The museum built by Frank Gehry hosts a collection of pottery from George Ohr, the "Mad Potter of Biloxi". Its gallery dedicated to African-American art is the perfect setting for the display which includes twelve sculptures and four laser prints of the artist's collages.

Inspired by his late wife, a dancer, Clifton Webb created a body of work centered on the female torso which is represented in most of the sculptures assembled for the exhibition, starting with the major piece facing the entrance. Great Mother with its hieratic pose presides over the show. Curves and breasts, symbol of femininity and nourishment, define the towering matriarch perched on a profiled female trunk for pedestal. She is crowned with a headdress fit for a queen, including a plume made of palm and wears a ceremonial cape decorated with patterns of black and white triangles with touches of red. The major piece defines the theme and style of the smaller sculptures lined up along the walls on each side. Most of them incorporate the female shape as part of semi-figurative works like Arabesque, a wood female torso upside down surmounted by a wreath made of imbricated blue-grey aluminum cones. Variations of the recurrent design (circle of cones) are also found at the bottom of Intergalactic Dancer, this time as an elaborate base supporting a light construction topped with swirls of paper. The diverse material used to build the multimedia compositions include wood, aluminum, bronze, brass, stones, plastic, sand, marble, copper, cowrie shells, steel..., and underline the skills of the artist who carves, sculpts, paints, hammers, ..., echoing the practice of African artists. Each sculpture in the round projects an aura enhanced by its title. For example,  Sankofa refers to the Asante symbol from Ghana. In Webb's version, the bird which represents the link between past and future, is replaced by a female statuette above a set of opened lips, evoking a prophetess. Mixture of religious and profane references, The Temple of  God reaches sacred undertones while Her Majesty, a construction standing on sand surmounted by a blue umbrella, brings a lighter note with its beachy attributes. The only reference to the male gender is found in Adam and Eve and Fearless Warrior. Symmetry, feature of African art, is key in Unity. Four photographs of  collages scattered along the walls energize the show with their colors and visual exuberance. Next to the wall text at the entrance, Mojo Venus sums up the myths about female power while the center piece Timeless Dancer protected by a glass case, represents the source of the artist's inspiration.

The wall text, also available on a flyer, provides a brief background about the artist and his work. In his pursuit of the "Sacred Muse" and the perfect Venus, Webb perpetuates female archetypes which may not befit current women's aspirations. However, the sculptures depict females with attributes of status and power and Eve noticeably carries her equal share of the world (represented by a heavy stone on top of the couple) with Adam. The artist reaches his goal of creating works that amplify "the royalty and sacredness of who the African American is". Without dates, the works are timeless and  could be part of an ongoing series.
Beyond the aestheticism, the sculptures engender reflection, and the contemplation of their quiet beauty brings to the recognition of the "power of art to harmonize the self with itself and with the world" (Vernon Lee).

photographs by the author

"Intergalactic Dancer"
"In the Beginning" (detail)
view of the exhibition at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum

Friday, August 31, 2018

Along the River

White Linen Night is over. Time to go back to the galleries and look at art!
At the Contemporary Arts Center, Constructing the Break, an Open Call exhibition curated by Allison M. Glenn, is dedicated to the Mississippi River. It assembles the works from thirty artists sharing close or loose links to New Orleans. Their diverse backgrounds and practices enrich the multi-media exhibition located in the main gallery on the building's first floor.

The show starts with Tar, 2018, a Gothic tale of destruction by Joris Lindhout. The installation is made of two videos, a stack of newspapers laid on the floor tied with a black string, an iPad held by two black hands on the wall and an old tape player on a stand. The devices are connected through black wires hanging from the ceiling. The story unfolds on the bigger screen where a glob of oil drips, drops, becomes a creepy substance invading its surroundings and eventually the world. A prescient performance by Joseph Beuys recorded in 1974 in the Gulf of Mexico is displayed on a smaller screen. It shows the artist coating himself with the black goo in the middle of a green bog. On the iPad's screen, a humorous scoop about the FBI looking for a MoMA's curator taken away by a mysterious kidnapper leaving black prints, is accompanied by advertisements for backyard fracking. The introduction gives the vibe to the rest of the exhibition which features an abstract representation of the goddess of fresh water, Oshun by Anastasia Pelias, and three wall pieces from Julie Morel about loss and memory through maps drawn with technologies involving GPS, LED's and conductive ink. Undertow, 2015-2018, the site specific post-industrial installation from Elliott Stockes is made of parts from oil distillation equipment laid on the gallery's vast open floor. Displacement, 2018, an interactive piece from Nurhan Gokturk features two newspaper vending machines side by side in which mirrors reflect deconstructed images of ourselves and our environment. Gabrielle Garcia Steib's mixed-media installation involves sound and photographs to tackle a hot issue, immigration, while Ana Hernandez gets us back to the subject of fracking with two pieces of her series Altering Internal Landscapes: In pursuit of unearthing bodies of Energy. "Visual representation of ecological trauma", The Haynesville, 2017, and The Bakken, 2017, combine Netters Anatomical Flash Cards with a depiction of the formations pierced by nails, evoking pain, thus life. The wounded rocks next to the description of human flesh become living matter by analogy. Annah Chalew makes her own canvasses with trash and plants resulting in unique brown monochrome landscapes. Her wall piece Root Shock II, 2018, combines opposite qualities: primal, sophisticated, coarse, delicate, heavy, light, tough, fragile, ..., and benefits from a close-up view. The life-size photograph of a tree with hanging moss, glowing in the last ray of sun against a soft pinkish sky, perfect picture for My Beautiful South, 2018, from Cynthia Scott, is spoiled by a metal pipe protruding from the tree trunk. Its orifice is covered by a small round screen on which a video is projected. It was shot by the artist along the river's bank and documents the green pastures giving way to industrial complexes and pollution. In Daybew, 2018, Mississippi Swan, a virtual artist born from the collaboration between Rick Snow, (Mississippi River in New Orleans) and Chris Tonkin, (Swan River in Perth), mixes the sounds of two far away cities to obtain scores of electronic music accompanied by colorful graphics flashing like advertisements.
The piece is a great transition to what feels like the second part of the exhibition, dominated by photographs and videos. Twenty black and white or color photographs from eight  local photographers gathered on a wall convey their vision of the city and its people.
 Across, the sixteen-minute video featuring the sculptor Maren Hassinger and her daughter, is a performance piece born from the interaction between artist, landscape, wind, water, and a white scarf. The poetic images are followed by Thy Glad Beams, 2016, from Wiley Aker, a mixture of footage from news and archives in black and white accompanied by an ominous background music resulting in a dramatic end of the world atmosphere. Preceded by three minimalist sculptures made with  concrete from Jack Niven, the conclusion of the show is an epic tale of the Mississippi river, told in less than ten minutes. With its dense content, There's Something in the Water: Yemoja and Osun, 2018, the video from Tia-Simone Gardner deserves to be watched several times to get the full grasp of its historical, geographical, sociological, architectural, poetical references. 
Each of the thirty artists gets to shine in the well-paced display. The coherence of the selected works, their quality and relevance to the subject, make the whole exhibition flow from start to end without a glitch. Lately, viewers have seen a lot of political art. This time, the artists made their point through a whole gamut of expressions more powerful and inspirational than slogans .
They all communicate their unconditional love for the city, the river and the South, and along with it, the "concept of being rooted consistently tempered by infrastructural fragility".

photographs by the author:

Cynthia Scott "My Beautiful South", 2018
Ana Hernandez "The Haynesville" and "The Bakken", 2017
View of Tia-Simone Gardner's installation "There's Something in the Water: Yemoja and Osun" 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

About New Orleans

While the San Antonio Museum of Art focuses on the city's Spanish heritage to celebrate its Tricentennial with a display of paintings from The Prado and other prestigious Spanish museums, the New Orleans Museum of Art features its community through the works of seven artists to commemorate the event. Changing Course: Reflections on New Orleans Histories, is a collaborative project between the museum's curators of contemporary art and of photography. It involves installations, photographs, drawings, sculptures, videos, multimedia works, and is located on the first floor of the museum.
Eleven photographs from the War on the Benighted series, 2015-2018, from L. Kasimu Harris were selected to introduce the exhibition in the Great Hall. Each deserves some time to ponder over its aesthetic qualities as well as its content. The staged scenes remind of events or important figures of African American history, and also pinpoint to the failures of the school system and other ongoing struggles. The adolescent actors stay stern, remote, sometimes defiant, and appear frozen in action, participants of a silent but powerful protest through the constructed reality of their surroundings. The series's title is sobering, benighted means: "existing in a state of intellectual, moral, or social darkness". The photographs are haunting.
A short walk to the back of the museum allows to shake off some heavy thoughts before entering the main gallery. Faced by a black wall with the title of the show and the list of artists in white letters, the visitor can find an introductory text in the anteroom of  Skylar Fein's installation Remember the Upstairs Lounge (2008), a memorial to the victims of the fire that destroyed the dive in 1973. A short passage between glowing red glass walls leads to a reproduction of the Upstairs Lounge's door and the bar itself: used red wallpaper with ragged edges, wood panels, pulpit for the guest book and tunes from the seventies in the background. In the semi-darkness, the funerary draping of framed official papers gives an eerie feeling to the display and horror soon follows at the sight of gruesome enlarged newspapers' images of charred bodies, each accompanied by a short text providing the story behind it. Across, smiling portraits of the innocent victims who were shunned by the community for being gay render the graphic scenes even more disturbing. By now, visitors are whispering to each other, walking slowly along the photographs, in respect. Around the corner, the second room of the installation is filled with artifacts, memorabilia, neon signs, giant portraits in woodcuts and photographs, "a fantasia of gay culture" according to the artist. In a photo booth (graffiti included), a video loop of the local news about the tragic event completes the display.
Without transition, the visitor enters the mystical world of  Sister Gertrude Morgan revisited by Lesley Dill through her installation Heaven Heaven Heaven/Hell Hell Hell: Encountering Sister Gertrude Morgan, (2010). Two mannequins dressed in sumptuous gowns, one black, the other white, fill the room. With her head shrouded in light white fabric, the "bride" wears a multilayered veil rising to the ceiling (the sky). Both have words taken from the Scriptures embroidered on their costumes, written in various calligraphic letters' style, size and color. The four walls are covered with words and symbols recounting Sister Gertrude Morgan's revelations, references to her life and prophetic visions of floods, cataclysms caused by sins. At the top, a frieze of delicately drawn figures runs around the room. The ethereal atmosphere created by the luminous prevailing white is followed by complete darkness in the next room where The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music (2014) from The Propeller Group is projected on a large screen. The images provide a glimpse in the funerary practices of Vietnam and New Orleans, two geographically distant places linked by their colonial past. The background music consist of  Vietnamese songs from the fifties performed by a New Orleans brass band. Cultural and environmental commonalities are highlighted in the inspiring film. Katrina Andry' first major museum exhibition is a site specific installation Diverge Divest Deny (repeat) which transforms the space into a tropical forest of palms decorated with epiphytic plants scattered in the greenery. The visitor can navigate between the forty-three panels of woodblock prints, and the aesthetically attracting work after a second look reveals its rich conceptual content. The designs on the folded papers: graphs, maps, texts, diagrams, evoke the rejected projects of an urbanist. They refer to the failed reconstruction projects that plague the African American community in New Orleans. A large room is dedicated to Willie Birch, represented by a wide variety of works from drawings to sculptures. Abandoned objects, portraits, architecture, the artist shares views of his neighborhood in his graphite and acrylic drawings hung on the walls. Bones found in a backyard are immortalized with a coat of gold paint and laid in a heap on the floor, while others are carefully displayed in a glass cabinet. For a Generation not yet Born: The Louisiana Slave Revolt of 1811, 2018, is a three hundred inches long tapestry/quilt made at the occasion of the city's tricentennial and another sizable work Waiting for a Serious Conversation on the History of the South, 2017, leads to a room filled with a table, chairs, books, an invitation to reflect on the past and future of the city and its people, surrounded by works from artists like George Dureau, John T. Scott or Sister Gertrude Morgan. The last and seventh project is organized by the New Orleans Photo Alliance and The Everyday Projects, an outreach program with a stand located in the hall.
Two of the works are now part of the museum's permanent collection. Skylar Fein's installation may have lost some of its intense feeling of confinement and dread generated by the smaller space allocated for Prospect.1 while Lesley Dill's gains another dimension with the higher ceilings and walls. Willie Birch's display could be called a retrospective or War on the Benighted series from L. Kasimu Harris could be a photographic exhibition on its own. The artists are all dealing with the subject of marginalized and disadvantaged groups living in the city. The landmark exhibition emphasizes the role of the museum, not a remote institution catering for a selected few, but  one of the community's gathering center, a place to expose and heal its pain through art.

The conversation can start, looking at the past, thinking about the future.

photographs by the author:

Katrina Andry "Diverge Divest Deny (repeat)" (detail)
Lesley Dill "Heaven heaven heaven/Hell Hell Hell" (detail), 2010
Willie Birch "For a Generation not yet Born: The Louisiana Slave Revolt of 1811", 2018

Monday, June 25, 2018

Back Home: Tina Girouard at the Acadiana Center for the Arts

Tina Girouard was born in DeQuincy, Louisiana, in 1946 and graduated with a BFA from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 1968. She then left for New York City and became part of a group of post-modernist artists, among them Keith SonnierLynda Benglis, Dickie Landry who shared her Southern roots. She was involved in films, videos, installations, performances, and her creativity was mainly aimed at "out of the gallery" projects focused on the artists' community like 112 Greene StreetFOOD or PS1. Following the destruction of her studio by fire, she moved back to Louisiana in the eighties. While pursuing her activism, she joined the Pattern and Decoration movement. In the early nineties, she traveled to Haiti and established a studio in Port-au-Prince. She describes her deep connection to her second home in a short statement: "I lost my head and my heart in Haiti."
Parts Known and Unknown curated by Brian Guidry and Mary Beyt at the Acadiana Center for the Arts focuses on the twenty years that followed Girouard's return to the South and features acrylics on canvas and sequins works.

At the start of the show, two black and white video recordings of Girouard's performances at NOMA in 1977 and Graz, Austria, in 1978, accompanied by a short wall text summing up the artist's contribution before the eighties, emphasize the radical turn of her practice following her move back to the South. Stepping further in the gallery, the visitor discovers her paintings and sequins works intermingled along the walls. The dozen acrylics made in the eighties are mostly about Louisiana. Weightless objects represented by stenciled images appear to drift on monochrome backgrounds, resulting in lively compositions like Saturday Night Special, c.1980, a medley of accordions (for the music), shoes (for the dance) and ...guns (for the brawl!), Louisiana on Parade, c.1980, with giant ants, lizards, saws, saxophones,... or Road Kill, c.1980. A subtle humor emanates from most. On a serious note, "OK, I Hope", 1982, refers to space exploration and "Louisiana: Through the Windshield", c.1980, (hung in the hall) the oil industry. It seems that Girouard's Pattern and Decoration period ends abruptly at the start of the next decade. InTools 1992, 1992, she applies her new skills to represent her pop imagery with sequins, but the result appears contrived and dull compared to her lively compositions of flora, fauna, tropical paradise, including a risqué love scene. Her "lwa series" reaches mythical dimensions. Fifteen pieces hung next to each other shimmer in the light with their delicate highly symbolic designs. Each tells a story described in a short wall text. This represents Girouard's tribute to her masters, the flag-makers from Haiti who she also honors in her book "Sequin Artists of Haiti".

The exhibition includes a center piece Lie-No, 1972, which, with the two grainy videos, reminds of the artist's pioneering work. Early on in the seventies, surrounded by the male crowd of the New York art scene, she participated in projects that have now become part of art history but her name is too often omitted. "We were all activists, we were just expressing our ideas and our beliefs with whatever materials we could." And she never ceased to be an activist along her career. The display by mixing two periods, each lasting a decade, avoids monotony and underlines her very personal quest. It also focuses on the artist, whose work is often featured in group shows like "The Five from Louisiana" in 1977 and "Robert Rauschenberg and the Five from Louisiana" in 2015 at NOMA or "Patterns and Prototypes" in 2011 at the Contemporary Art Center.
Thanks to the solo show, Tina Girouard is back home: "I wandered away from the art world over the past twenty years to the Louisiana swamps and Vodoo societies in Haiti."

photographs by the author:
Vodou Drapeau Series "Toussaint All Saints", c.1990
"Louisiana on Parade", c.1980

Tuesday, June 5, 2018


The Painted Word  written by Tom Wolfe was published more than forty years ago. The author's recent passing reminds us to read or reread his books, in particular his essay about art, to look back at his legacy. What does the writer knows about art? A lot. He weaves, spins, tells its history in six dense chapters covering several decades starting in the twenties moving on to the seventies, from Europe to the United States.

Following a Aha! moment, Tom Wolfe ponders about the polarization between "literary art and l'art pour l'art" in Modern post-world war II. In one hundred pages, he reflects on the interaction between the different actors, from the artists caught  between a "Boho world" and celebrity, to us the public, mere observers, tourists in the art world led by a handful of movers and shakers, the elite made of  "collectors and other culturati". In post-war New York, the movers are named  Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg who coined the term "action painting", for Abstract Expressionism, followed by Leo Steinberg for Pop art. The pace of the book accelerates as Wolfe goes through Minimalism ending up with the ultimate piece of art, a work without visual experience described in Arts Magazine in 1970. The key to the book is found in this sentence: "late twentieth-century Modern art was about to fulfill its destiny, which was: to become nothing less than Literature pure and simple."
Through his abbreviated history of Modern art, the author is developing his theory. None of the protagonists are missing and some stories veer to the gossip in this entertaining book featuring a cartoon to introduce each chapter. Without references or bibliography, it should not be approached like an academic piece of writing, but should be read as a thought provoking essay. It generated  some controversy to which Wolfe responded in this interview for the Paris Review:"But to say these people blindly follow Clement Greenberg's or Harold Rosenberg's theories, which is pretty much what The Painted Word is saying, and that a whole era was not visual at all but literary, now that got them.".

... a thought provoking book indeed, as relevant now as it was when published, back then.

photograph by the author:
Jackson Pollock "Composition (White, Black, Blue and Red on White)", 1948 
permanent collection New Orleans Museum of Art

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Here and There in New Orleans

Figurative, abstract, ..., paintings, videos, ..., the diversity of works and the number of artists represented by the galleries transform a tour from Magazine, Julia and the St Claude neighborhood into a welcomed challenge for the viewer's eyes and taste. Trying to find connections between the exhibitions becomes a futile endeavor. There are no limits to artistic expression as shown by the displays and one may just decide to enjoy the adventure while wandering from place to place.  

This month is particularly fertile, starting Uptown at TEN Gallery where Peter Barnitz's solo show reveals his latest works. The painter gets inspired by various artists to create his very personal compositions built layers after layers. The resulting meditative abstract landscapes evoke Australian Aboriginal art with their maze of dots as illustrated by the piece Neutral Ground, 2018which gave its name to the show. New black and white pieces combine the distinctive web-like graphics with drips. They also incorporate a portrait in Dream, 2018, and silhouettes in Reunion, 2018. Two sculptures reflect Barnitz's concerns regarding current events.
Just a few blocks away, Cole Pratt Gallery also features a solo show, Polymorphs from Marianne Desmarais. The collection of three dimensional wooden wall sculptures made of laser cut basswood on sheets of colored linen is an interplay between shapes, colors and shadows. Sophisticated in their simplicity, the geometric constructions reflect the background of the artist who is also an architect.
The galleries on Julia Street in the CBD offer a diversity of style from figurative to abstract. Starting at the Arthur Roger Gallery, John Alexander's oils on canvas exude romanticism featuring birds or flowers on tormented backgrounds. Beautiful and doomed, nature engenders strong emotions.  Benjamin Chamback's series of day lilies at LeMieux Galleries are painted on copper. The flowers are attractive and also dangerous, festive or deadly according to the backgrounds' colors. Abstract is represented by the minimalist sculptures from John Henry at Callan Contemporary and paintings from Deborah Pelias at Boyd Satellite while abstract expressionism is found at Octavia Art Gallery with Kikuo Saito's works.
There are always surprises and fresh ideas in the St. Claude Arts District's galleries. The 101 views from Mt. Fuji, screen captures from video games collected over five years and then edited by Ashley Anderson, are one of them at The Front. The tribute to Hokusai, who made 100 prints of the famous mountain, rejuvenates the symbol through new technologies. Coincidence? The installation from Ann Schwab in the back of the gallery is also about Japan, meditation and spirituality. The visit includes a boisterous show from Thomas Friel who unleashes his energy to create patterns or random designs in loud colors along the walls, adding a live performance (or not) to help us "better hear the voices in your head" and the melancholic black and white photographs from Jared Ragland shot in New Orleans, inspired by The Moviegoer from Walker Percy. Group shows can be overwhelming. Birds of a Feather curated by Tony Campbell at Barrister's features the works from thirty artists, best summed up by the sobering installation from Pippin Frisbee-Calder Canceled Addition about disappearing bird species. The New Orleans Art Center and Antenna present exhibitions with themes related to the 2018 Wetlands Art Tour.

For the number of galleries or artists I did not mention... I'll be back!

photographs by the author:

Peter Barnitz "Neutral Ground" (detail), 2018
Pippin Frisbee-Calder "Canceled Addition" (detail)
Ashley Anderson "Pollen Season"

Monday, May 14, 2018

Lee Friedlander at NOMA

Lee Friedlander's love for music and his photographic career are deeply intertwined. From his portraits of musicians for album covers, he went on to capture the spirit of America through his camera's lens. While living in New York City, he visited New Orleans for extended periods of time following his first stay in 1957, attracted by the jazz scene and the idiosyncrasy of the place. The exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of ArtLee Friedlander in Louisiana, is a compilation of photographs shot in Louisiana, mainly New Orleans, spanning over sixty years. Set on the museum's second floor, the show is introduced by a line-up of colored prints from his famous album covers hung along the walls of the Great Hall.

The black and white photographs are more or less organized in chronological order starting in the late 50's. Portraits of musicians and second lines, they reveal Friedlander's skills at catching the moment in his unique compositions. Obstruction (Sweet Emma Barrett, 1958), photographs within photographs (photograph of the Perron-Williams Band, Johnny St. Cyr's House, 1958), shadows, juxtaposing the bell of a sousaphone and the head of a musician or silhouetting Louis Keppard against his guitar, Friedlander uses various techniques to capture the subjects in their surroundings and render memorable scenes. Of note, a picture never shown before is a view of the streetcar made in 1958. It echoes the famous photograph from Robert Frank, found on the cover of his book The Americans with text by Jack Kerouac published in 1958, reminding of Frank's influence on Friedlander. Moving on to the 60's, the next room is filled with photographs illustrating Friedlander's techniques, this time applied to buildings, street scenes and storefronts. The results are minimalist like two poles crossing the line drawn by a sidewalk or busy compositions, interplay between reality and reflections of it. In a photograph acquired by the museum, Friedlander's shadow and his image on a mirror result in a double selfie only seen through the camera. Another pic features the statue of a horse reflected in a car's side-view mirror side by side with a man on a bicycle who appears to be riding into the mirror, an illusion due to the skewed scales. These are not staged but caught by the photographer who sees like his camera. Monuments are the next theme. With their unusual points of view, the photographs reveal shots of statues or buildings in quirky and humorous surroundings. They also document the changes in the city recorded over forty years and include nine views of the Plaza Tower at different times, the statue of Robert E. Lee just taken down this year or the Superdome under construction. Foreshortening, square format, ..., new camera, new options highlighted in the more recent photographs displayed in the last gallery.

Musicians, cars, monuments, self-portraits, are among some of the themes of books published in the past by the prolific photographer. The exhibition provides a sample of each through the carefully selected images linked by their location in Louisiana. The artist's connection to New Orleans over several decades reflects in his work which with time is also gaining a historical significance making the photographs' display during the celebration of the city's Triennial a timely event.
It is also a tribute to the photographer who never stops "clicking" his camera.

"I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them." --- Diane Arbus.
So could say Lee Friedlander.

photographs by the author:

1. "New Orleans, Louisiana", 2003

3. "New Orleans, Louisiana", 1958

photograph courtesy New Orleans Museum of Art

2. "New Orleans, Louisiana", 1968

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Strolling on St. Claude

"Second Saturdays" on St. Claude has become one of New Orleans art scene's highlights with the number of visitors growing exponentially, it seems. The opening night of the galleries located along the St. Claude corridor stretching from Elysian Fields to Poland Avenue is the occasion to become acquainted with local artists and, over the years, follow the members of collectives like Staple Goods, The Front or Good Children.

Venues have sprouted in anticipation of the triennial Prospect.4, among them Double Shotgun  displaying works from the collective Level Art and guests. This month, the show titled INSIDE OUT Reflections on Incarceration in Louisiana sounds daunting. The core of the exhibition is located in two rooms, one on each side of the double shotgun house. On the left, the mementos selected by Maria Hinds belonged to Herman Wallace, a convict later cleared of a crime he did not commit, after forty one years of solitary confinement. The personal objects, casual (a  pair of socks), playful (a ball made with socks) or official (legal papers or hand-written letters) are photographed by Matthew Thompson for this collaborative project. Grey takes over the black and white photographs about memories and their implied losses and regrets. The other side features the drawings from Glenn Ford, made while he was on death row. They reflect what a man without hope dreams of: birds, flowers, love. A starving man has visions of feasts, the prisoner finds freedom through his meticulous pictures. The reminding rooms are filled with works from artists like Rontherin Ratliff with his simple but poignant sculpture made of eight strands of steel falling from the ceiling to the floor, two of them featuring a basic knot. Less is more also in Out There, 2018, a white monochrome wall piece from Ana Hernandez. The two words written in braille  resume the epistolary exchanges between Herman Wallace and the artist who communicated for years without meeting in person. One can watch The Guilt of Innocence, The Truth of Lies, 2018, mixed media on TV from Carl Joe Williams, very relevant in the exhibition's context. So are the paintings from John Isiah Walton The Farm and Fruit of the Farm, both 2016. With a total of twelve artists included in the show, plan to spend some time. The exhibition is conducive to reflections about the grim subject without getting heavy and gives a purpose to lives which otherwise would have been forgotten.

The contrast is jarring at  Antenna Gallery where the one man show from Devin Reynolds Tyrone Don't Surf  takes place. Murals and smaller size works lined up along the walls feel like a visual scream. While studying architecture at Tulane University, the artist born and raised in Santa Monica, California, started to delve into printmaking and sign painting. He applies his skills for these mixed media compositions built with words from vernacular language and caricatures of a black man called "Tyrone". Surfing becomes the symbol of exclusion as implied in the title of the exhibition. The artist widens the subject and also treats of incarceration in his punchy works filled with derogatory sometimes bitter humor. Their ambivalence keeps you "on the edge" throughout the show which will leave you between tears and a smile.

The visit goes on to The Front where Brian St Cyr, a versatile artist presents his latest works on paper for his show Mississippi Mud. The display includes drawings and watercolors with their distinctive "bayou green" shade and a new work, experimentation with children toys. Upon leaving the gallery, Embrace, is the occasion to get a hug from Vanessa Centeno's interactive sculptures. Across the street, new pieces from Aaron McNamee at Good Children, a stop at UNO St. Claude Gallery to look at the works from MFAs (congrats Ruth Owens, Natalie Woodlock ), William dePauw at Staple Goods, an outstanding show at Barrister's, a visit at the New Orleans Art CenterSecond Story Gallery and BrickRed, the latest gallery on the block ...
It now takes several strolls during the month-long exhibitions to see them all.

photographs by the author:

John Isiah Walton "Fruit of The Farm", 2016
Devin Reynolds "Everyone's Favorite Black Guy Until its 11 pm and hes the only other person on the street", 2018
Brian St Cyr "Mississippi Mud #1"

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Sarah Morris at the CAC

Sawdust and Tinsel, one of the latest exhibitions at the Contemporary Arts Center, features the work of Sarah Morris, a geometric abstract painter and film maker born in 1967. In the mid-1990's, she started exploring the "urban, social and bureaucratic typologies" of various cities, among them Rio and Abu Dhabi. The display located on the first floor of the building includes nine paintings, two films and four drawings on paper.

Three paintings from the recent series Rio, hung along the wall at the entrance, are an abrupt introduction for viewers unfamiliar with the artist's vision. A quick glance reveals the usual language of geometric abstraction: simple shapes filled with bright glossy household paint. Visitors might go on to read a long wall text under the title of the exhibition. However, a prolonged scrutiny generates fleeting visual illusions. Rio Atlantica (Rio), 2013, starts swirling like the images of a kaleidoscope, Bovespa (Rio)2013, acquires depth and volume with its thick grey lines superimposed on a colored grid and one can find a vertiginous abyss in the asymmetrical patterns of Denuza Leão (Rio), 2012. The titles provide the cues to  the artist's inspiration: a luxury hotel, the Brazilian stock market or a multi-talented female celebrity. Casa das Canoas (Rio), 2013, referring  to the house designed by the famous architect Oscar Niemeyer and Hybrid Solar Eclipse (Rio), 2013, complete the Rio series on display with the addition of February 2017, 2017, a recent piece  somewhat incongruous among the collection. In the next galleries, four paintings from the Abu Dhabi series are intermingled with four ink drawings on paper. Adco (Abu Dhabi), 2017, Siemens (Abu Dhabi), 2015, Taqa (Abu Dhabi), 2015. and E45 (Abu Dhabi), 2015, are composed with a new color scheme and design pattern, reflecting the place's landscapes and psyche. No circles or curves, the shapes are made of sharp lines in reference to the soaring urban architectures set against the flatness of the desert. Black provides the "skeleton" for muted colors and occasional rays of yellow or turquoise. Two films running simultaneously bring a different experience. Rio, 2012, a view of the city seen through the artist's lens complements the series of paintings. Strange Magic, 2014, is a documentary of a sort about the luxury company that established the Louis Vuitton Foundation. A sequence features the construction of the building designed by Frank Gehry near the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris. Liam Gillick's electronic music accompanies both movies.

Piet Mondrian's New York City I  was composed in 1942,  Frank Stella's Gran Cairo in 1962 (Stella, a seasoned traveler, visited the Middle East in the 60's). Does geometric abstraction belong to art history? What is new? In an interview with Philippe Parreno, Morris confided that her paintings "use" architecture but are not about architecture. She describes a "physical struggle" to compose the works "all based on very specific math and diagrams." "My paintings are my version of a QR code." Except for Casa das Canoas, due to the modest size of the canvases, the first impression is underwhelming. After spending some time, the hypnotic square paintings appear to be about colors, sounds, rhythms. This is how I read them. Geometric abstraction forgoes emotions and Morris chooses the other side of her practice to tickle our feelings... or she would if the lack of chairs or benches had not transformed the films' viewing into a frustrating experience. Who can stand in front of a screen for 88 min 33 sec (Rio) and 45 min 8 sec (Strange Magic)? I ended up watching clips on the artist's Website. Overall, I find her message ambiguous. Dallying with a luxury company, she becomes the apologist of a brand and a famous architect through her film. In her statement, "I title them (my paintings) after existing or past places that have been institutions of authority, whether for the good or the bad", she admits to be a mere observer with her paintings and her camera.
The title of the exhibition appears disconnected to the works. The wall text provides an explanation about its origin. Sawdust and Tinsel, is a 1953 Swedish drama directed by Ingmar Bergman and by some convoluted associations, the exhibition ends up being related to the city's Tricentennial celebrations. Which leaves me wonder how Sarah Morris would represent the city of New Orleans, a cultural patchwork far from the"sense of emptiness characteristic of contemporary urban experience".
To conclude, Frank Stella's famous statement: "What you see is what you see".

photographs by the author:

"Rio Atlantica (Rio)", 2013
"Siemens (Abu Dhabi), 2015

Sunday, March 18, 2018

More than Fashion

Stunning! The word overheard from visitors and buzzing on social media describes my first impression. A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes which recently opened at the New Orleans Museum of Art offers an enchanted visit with a walk through seven themed areas related to femininity defined by fashion. The seven archetypes include Thespian, Mother Earth, Explorer, Magician, Enchantress, Sage and Heroin queens. Each is represented by clothes displayed in fitting decors accompanied by accessories representing their character with a total of more than one hundred items from renowned to more obscure avant-garde fashion designers. Related wall texts, videos and prints complete the display.
The exhibition starts in a dark space illuminated only by a few spotlights aimed at a central pedestal on which are perched mannequins wearing gowns, dresses and suits from Alexander McQueen who inspired the show. David LaChapelle's photograph of a costumed McQueen and his mentor Isabella Blow near a Scottish castle is a reminder of the fashion designer's heritage. The section about Thespian includes detailed wall texts and photographs from Omar Victor Diop and Cooper and Gorfer. Nearby, Mother Earth features an artificial grotto as a backdrop for a garden of Eden filled with pink flowers. A closer look reveals protest signs and banners embedded in the paradisaical display. Designer Vivienne Westwood's clothes are accompanied by her hand written manifesto/poem about "Climate Revolution" and one can find a pair of trainers from Adidas made with recycled plastic, a smog free ring, T-shirts with slogans like "Be Gentle and Kind" or a bag made of tarpaulin from Sweden as well as a scarf from Lebanon addressing the refugee crisis. The next gallery hosts the five remaining queens starting with Explorer. Everyday clothes like checkered shirts or cardigans with distorted shapes represent the adventurer and rebel. She is not afraid of being different as illustrated by photographs of models on wheelchairs or the deformed prosthetic torsos from Maja Gunn. Magician or "the impossible made reality" is rendered by outlandish outfits set in a fairytale installation. Holes allow to peep inside a white plastic enclosure surrounding a blooming orchard that contains sixteen items fit for a seductress-Enchantress. Sage is characterized by her wisdom and wades into "smart-garments": shoes made of pineapple waste, sounds-suits for deaf people, a "cymatic" dress, biodegradable textile made of cow manure or jewelry controlled by mobile devices. Ecological to sci-fi, fashion has no limit thanks to new technologies presented in six short videos while samples of the real things are displayed in a glass case. The final queen, Heroin, a soldier and warrior, wears shiny or padded dresses like armors and elaborate headpieces like helmets.

From sculptural jewelry and dresses to adorned shoes, the blurry boundaries between art and fashion are highlighted throughout the show. The print from Maïmouna Guerresi, a multi-media artist, conveys ideas about life and death through soap bubbles escaping from a round black hole suggesting an outsized womb built in the garment worn by the model. Another memento mori, LaChapelle's photograph of McQueen and Isabella Blow features the two partying in extravagant costumes near a Scottish castle. The scene includes a discrete skull at the lower right. Premonitory? They both did suicide. A dazzling sculpture from Raoúl de Nieves made of thousands of minuscule colored beads contrast with a white gown from Alexander McQueen set along the wall like a figurehead. At every turn, the show offers not only visual stimuli but also fodder for thoughts about ecology, cultural diversity, psychology of colors, technology, economics, sociology, psychoanalysis, politics, ... Fashion is glamorous but also engaged. The concept of the exhibition itself is bold defining seven feminine archetypes modeled after Carl Jung's universal symbols. Feminist movements questioned Jung's theories in the past due to their stereotyping of femininity. Fashion tends to submit women to trends and conformity but this time it appears as a "reflection of women as talented and multifaceted". If the abundance of wall texts appeared overwhelming at first, it contributes to an  enriching visit.

The exhibition was curated by MUSEEA, a collaborative platform based in Barcelona. It is accompanied by an enlightening pamphlet from Mel Buchanan, Curator of Decorative Arts and Design and a catalog.
... stunning, fascinating, informative, provocative, artistic,...

photographs by the author:

Vivienne Westwood Red Label, UK Placards "Mirror the World", Spring/Summer 2016
Raúl de Nieves "Day(Ves) of Wonder", 2007-2014
Hassan Ajjaj "Kesh Angels" series, 2010

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Minimalism at Staple Goods

Until March 4th, Staple Goods features the latest work from Jack Niven with Footings, a show assembling sixteen pieces made of concrete. Among other accomplishments, the painter and sculptor previously exhibited Happiness By The Gram at the gallery, and created a joyful street mural made of "radiant orbs" for the triennal Prospect New Orleans (Prospect.3). Reckon can be seen on Tchoupitoulas. Inspired by subjects as varied as history, his surroundings, the digital world, the artist expresses himself through different languages from figurative to abstract, according to themes. This time, he has chosen the purest form of abstract art, minimalism, for this tribute to his father, Jack Niven.

The sculptures displayed on individual supports attached to the white walls of the gallery are below eye level, allowing a bird view. Four of them are set on a pedestal in the center of the room, one along the windowsill and Untitled #11 on a shelf near the entrance. The grey color of the concrete on the white background generates an emotionless environment in the carefully prepped space. No visual distraction is allowed, not even wall texts and as a result of the visual "cleanliness", the sculptures appear to be floating along the walls, adding an unexpected quality to the medium: lightness. Leaflets at the entrance provide detailed information about the works, including the artist's statement. The assemblage of geometric shapes and different shades of grey are the only variants in the neutral monochrome display. With an average length of ten inches, the longest reaching thirty, the pieces could be held in one hand. The three-dimensional works have not only visual but also haptic qualities due to the rough surface of the cold material. Each looked at different angles offers variations of aesthetic beauty through perfect lines and shapes.

The "white gallery" has become a cliché, but this time it is part of the show, a world of purity and quietness to engender reflection and spirituality. Of note, the word minimalism came from the essay entitled Minimal Art, 1965, by British philosopher Richard Wollheim. It is defined by a few criteria which include usually industrial material and sobriety of shapes to create reductive pieces of art, objects activating the space, themselves activated by the viewer. In this exhibition, the untitled and numbered works meet all the qualifications of minimalism. What about the artist's intend? Purely aesthetic for a graphic impact or a higher goal through simple imagery leading to meditation? Niven provides a clue with Untitled #11 acting as a vessel for a sample of his father's ashes. Clearly as described in his artist's statement, he has dedicated the exhibition to his father who was in the construction business. What more appropriate than the architectural pieces made with concrete? The sculptures have also become receptacles for emotions and memories, "permanent and impervious to the natural world for many generations" to come.
One material, one color, simple shapes, so much with so little.

photographs by the author

Monday, February 19, 2018

How to See

Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art (2017), a book written by Michael Findlay, offers refreshing ways of looking at art and more importantly of "seeing" art. If you feel worn out, jaded, after walking through an art museum (it can happen), this book is for you. In seven chapters, the author provides a list of do's and don'ts to rekindle your enthusiasm. Going back to why we are looking at art in the first place, the seasoned art dealer addresses "pros" and "beginners", sharing his very personal thoughts and experience.
Following a brief introduction to present the book's objectives, the author describes the viewers' relationship to art in a chapter that is mainly a summary of his previous publication, The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty (2012). He next spends some time defining what makes a work of art and by the fourth chapter gets to the core of the subject: our approach to visual art and in particular "The Difference Between Looking and Seeing". Questions outlined in bold fonts like "Can Art Be Heard?", "Can Art Be Read?", "Can Art Be in a Hurry?", initiate responses from the author who supports his arguments with examples gathered through his personal experience and his vast knowledge of the art world. Quickly, it becomes obvious that he is passionate about banning labels, wall texts, audio recordings, cameras, phones, and any means that interfere in the relationship between the viewer and the piece of art including talking with a friend.
The longest chapters, five and six, are filled with advice on how to approach the visit and "see" the work of art, sometimes through provocative statements like "Ignorance Is Knowledge". Findlay at some point imagines a dialogue between himself and you (the viewer) in front of the well-known Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-1943, from Piet Mondrian, avoiding technical terms in the purposely casual conversation. Carrying on this vein, he demystifies the art world with his new definition of the connoisseur of art: "In today's world, a connoisseur of art is not someone who claims to know what is real and what is fake, what is good and what is bad, or what is going up or down in value. Today a connoisseur is someone like you with the curiosity and energy to seek out works of art." In simple terms, Findlay establishes criteria for quality in a piece of art, reveals his dislike of the cynical money component, shares his experience with students, provides advice on how to approach art with children, and more, in a book which includes great quotes, abundant illustrations, and a list of references.
The author is present throughout his writings, especially in the last chapter in which he recounts his journey from amateur to expert art dealer, starting in his childhood.
His advice are well taken, keeping in mind that seeing art remains a very personal experience.

Michael Findlay (2017) Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art, Prestel

photographs by the author 

Mark Rothko "No 10", 1950, at Fondation Louis Vuitton exposition "Etre Moderne: le MoMA a Paris"
Wassily Kandinsky "Auf Spitzen", 1928, at Centre Georges Pompidou

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Is This Art?

Since its invention in the 1830's, photography has been the subject of an argument now pretty much settled: photography is an art form. This month, three concurrent exhibitions at Arthur Roger Gallery are dedicated to the printed medium with the main show assembling more than twenty recent pictures from the world renowned photographer David Yarrow. A collection of works from Robert Mapplethorpe and George Dureau are facing each other in the adjacent gallery. Portraits and videos from Brent McKeever, a 16-year-old photographer, are found in a homey back space. While the nude portraits from Mapplethorpe and Dureau may still upset some viewers, they passed the test of time and even of law. Mapplethorpe's pictures of penises are now prized as much as those of his suggestive flowers. McKeever's portraits of swim-suited beauties on beaches veer toward fashion photography. What about David Yarrow's images of wild animals?

The picture of a huge elephant facing the entrance is an unusual sight in a fine art gallery. The monochrome show features twenty large-scale photographs hung along the walls of the space, spreading from the street side to the back of the building. Surrounded by elephants, lions, bears, wildlife found in remote places of India, Africa, Northern America, it is a challenge to select one of the beasts to start the visit. Each photograph is accompanied by a lengthy wall text commenting on the pic's circumstances, the subject itself, providing technical details about the shot and of course its title, location and year. The portraits provide a unique view of the animals seen from below, themselves gazing at the viewer. Close-ups convey the idea of huge bodies, so does cropping of heads which appear too big to fit within the frame. To suggest strength, power, wisdom, appendages like tusks become the focal point. The images are usually flattened leaving little to no room for a background. A few photographs offer a glimpse into the fauna's habitat. For these, Yarrow chose to break the rules of composition to make his point. For example, in The Gathering Storm, 2011, the row of elephants stays under the perfect straight line of the horizon defining a small band of land, while the sky occupies most of the space above it. The massive pachyderms appear minuscule at the bottom, like crushed by the heavy clouds, overtaken by the wrath of nature. In 78 Degrees North, 2017, a white bear is walking away, swallowed by the whiteness of its natural environment, the pads of its back paw picturing a black abstract sign. One step further, The Factory, 2017, a photograph of zebra patterns results in pure abstraction. What about colors or lack of it? Let's quote the artist who shared his thoughts about it in an interview: "There are three reasons (to choose black and white): Firstly, it's timeless. Secondly, it's art rather than reality... It just feels aesthetically stronger... Thirdly, a photograph's like a piano. You should be able to use all 88 keys on the piano and go from the rich blacks to the full whites."  In his statement, Yarrow describes his intend to create art. Of course to do so, he had to master the required technical skills and his quest for the perfect shot led him to invent a custom made 14-pound steel box to protect his remote controlled cameras, allowing the unique point of view and perspective. Unable to have his sitter pose for the shot, he manages to "freeze" the moment and like a portrait painter, aims at  immortalizing the soul of his subjects.
One aspect of art, which is thorny but unavoidable, is money. The photographs are printed in limited editions of 12 and bought by collectors, which establishes their status in the art world. So does being hung in art galleries and museums. 

Ultimately, this quote attributed to the great painter Francis Bacon resumes why we are looking at the photographs: "I have always been very interested in photography. I have looked at more photographs than I have paintings. Because their reality is stronger than reality itself."

photographs by the author

David Yarrow's Website to look at his photographs:

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Artist's Legacy at Boyd Satellite

There is no better way to discover a city than to walk through its streets, looking at the architecture while learning about its history. To assimilate a city's culture requires a deeper involvement which includes getting acquainted with its artistic heritage, especially in New Orleans where Jeffrey Cook (1961-2009) was born and raised. His short career left a deep imprint on the city's art scene, and the exhibition at Boyd Satellite Gallery is the latest proof of this. A Nkisi for Jeffrey Cook is a "memorial and tribute" to the artist and gathers an extensive body of work, spanning from his debuts as a sculptor to his last pieces.

In the photograph under the title of the show, the artist appears serious and thoughtful. According to his peers, he was charismatic, humble and loyal to his family, friends and community. Starting in a clockwise fashion from the entrance, the exhibition is more or less organized in chronological order.  The overall display offers all shades of browns to blacks with occasional touches of color brought up by works like the first three wall pieces inspired by compositions from John T. Scott, Cook's teacher at Xavier University. Joseph Cornell's influence is also noticeable in the four "boxes" hung along the wall. Each tells a story. In search of his own language, the artist designed two geometric sculptures in painted wood, one of them with ladders, symbol of escape from reality to an imaginary world, according to Joan Miró. Jeffrey Cook's previous endeavor as a lead dancer for a Los Angeles dance company brought him to visit numerous countries from Europe to Asia. However, he never reached the shores of Africa. It is upon his return to New Orleans in the eighties, while visiting the French Quarter galleries, that he soaked in African art and embraced its soul. Most of the following pieces are made with what became his media of choice: cloth, wood, found objects, to create spiritual landscapes. Filled with artifacts gathered in the streets of New Orleans, most of the wall sculptures are of smaller sizes except three of them which could be called panels due to their dimensions while another pair is accompanied by preliminary drawings, proof of the artist's quest for aesthetic and content. All include recurrent symbols like brooms, children's blocks, chalk, ..., described in Andy Antipas's essay Jeffrey Cook: African Art and New Orleans as: "created objects that elude rational analysis, because they form a magical, ideographic vocabulary that is indecipherable without the artist's grimoire". A collection of statuettes made of black cloth secured with twine, like funerary objects, is displayed on individual shelves. Black birds are represented in many pieces. Born from ancestral African beliefs about the soul's future after death, the symbol is also found in Song of Silence. The poignant sculpture made to commemorate two of Cook's friends killed in a shooting features the barrel of two shotguns transformed into birds. Another moving piece is about the holocaust. With pieces of rags and strings, the artist built two expressive figurines full of sorrow. Two collages and an abstract painting are reminders of a less well known side of the artist who was also a painter. The eclectic material of the center piece appears to have been collected after hurricane Katrina. The sculpture, an unstable fragile assemblage of pulleys, pieces of wood and varied objects, evokes destruction and a world in turmoil.

Most of the pieces belong to friends and/or collectors and the busy display misses information about their titles or dates. However, pamphlets and essays written by peers are available at the gallery, providing a window on the artist's work and persona. The exhibition is appropriately called a memorial and includes personal possessions like a weathered bicycle and large pieces of wood from a childhood's tree house built by Cook and his friends in their Central City neighborhoodThe artist started to collect everyday objects almost two decades before the disaster struck the city, catching its soul through the debris found in the streets and transforming them into relics through his sculptures. We are made of our past, and Cook went far back in time and also places to find his, digging into his roots from Africa to the Caribbean and fill his works with "spiritual and ritualistic qualities". Four African sculptures embedded in the show emphasize this, so does a quote from Antipas: "... African art was created as spirit guides, to venerate the ancestors, to encourage clan and tribal social order, to protect the community and individuals,... and most importantly, to protect against the supernatural... Jeffrey's pieces are themselves a kind of talisman to help negotiate the fearsome supernatural powers which surround us".

I previously saw a few works from Cook at various venues like the New Orleans Museum of Art or the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Going through the show allows not only to get a grasp of his body of work but also of his connections to the city's art scene.
The exhibition which takes place during the Triennial Prospect.4 and also at the start of the city's Tricentennial commemoration is the occasion to measure the breadth of Jeffrey Cook's legacy.

photographs by the author